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China’s new Weapon is ‘Political Archaeology’
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Claude Arpi | Date:04 May , 2021 0 Comments
Claude Arpi
Writes regularly on Tibet, China, India and Indo-French relations. He is the author of 1962 and the McMahon Line Saga, Tibet: The Lost Frontier and Dharamshala and Beijing: the negotiations that never were.

In February this year, the Communist Party of China (CPC) started a new campaign called “Party History Learning and Education”; it will continue in full swing through the year as the CPC celebrates its centenary in July. Neican, a weekly brief on China published from Australia, observed: “The CPC’s official historiography is a product of politics and serves a political agenda.” There is no doubt about this, and India should closely watch the new campaign.

Neican’s analysts said: “In the case of the current campaign, it aims to strengthen ideological cohesion, confidence, and a sense of historical destiny. In doing so, it will likely reinforce the legitimacy of Xi Jinping as the party’s helmsman and his political project of national rejuvenation.”

Like everything in China these days, the crusade originated in an “important” speech by President Xi Jinping, the new Great Helmsman. On February 20, at a gathering in Beijing, Mr Xi spoke of “the importance of learning the history of the CPC, so as to let the party better serve the people and lead the country to fully build a modern socialist country.”

Xinhua commented that the CPC has achieved its first centenary goal “to complete building a moderately prosperous society in all respects”, and now embarks on the second: “The learning [of history] will help ensure the whole party to remain true to its original aspiration.”

Being purely an ideological move, archaeology plays a crucial role in the new scheme of “national rejuvenation”. If Beijing is able to prove that China dominated large parts of Asia, let us say 3,000 or 4,000 years ago, the ideological foundation of the rejuvenation will be established.

Already in September last year, Mr Xi presided over a meeting of the party’s politburo and discussed “the latest archaeological discoveries in China and their significance”. The CPC general secretary showed a great interest in excavating the past; he spoke of “developing archaeology to better understand the long-standing and profound Chinese civilization”.

He said that he attached “great importance to archaeological research to deepen people’s understanding of Chinese civilisation that features a long history and profoundness, thus providing strong support for promoting fine traditional culture and strengthening people’s confidence in Chinese culture”. You could ask: how does this concern India?

Unfortunately, it does, especially after China’s new territorial claims in Ladakh as well as the older ones in Arunachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh.

On April 14, The China Daily mentioned with fanfare an event highlighting “China’s Top 10 New Archaeological Discoveries of Year 2020”; the annual awards function was dubbed the “Oscars of Chinese archaeology”. The idea was to promote new archaeological findings among the masses, with a 21-expert judging panel selecting the 10 sites.

One of them is the Sangsdar Lungmgo graveyard site in Tsanda county of Ngari prefecture of Western Tibet. Tsanda, or Zanda, is located near the historical vestiges of Tholing, close to the Indian border, north of Uttarakhand. The findings date from the 4th century BC to 7th century AD and though it is not officially said, it belongs to the Kingdom of Zhangzhung, which spread across Western Tibet and Northern India. The site was presented as a key finding “of early-stage history of Tibet, showing frequent communication among the region with the area to the south of Himalayas as well as today’s central China and Xinjiang”.

India should be concerned because “political archeology” has always helped China to substantiate its territorial claims at a later date. Zhangzhung was an ancient kingdom which spread in Western Tibet and Northern India; it predates the culture of Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet and is usually associated with the Bon faith. The inhabitants are often mentioned in ancient Tibetan texts as the original rulers of central and western Tibet. Only in the last two decades or so, have archaeologists started to excavate areas once ruled by the Zhangzhung kings.

Though very little is known about the extent of the kingdom, it is said to have had extensive contacts with its neighbours, particularly Northern India (and not China). While Beijing has now taken up a large number of excavation sites to demonstrate Zhangzhung’s relations with the mainland, very little is done in India, where archaeology is still under the slumberous Archaeological Survey of India and the babus of the ministry of culture.

At the same time, China is moving ahead with the blessings of the People’s Leader; for example in November 2017, China Tibet Online mentioned a group of 2,000-year-old sarcophagi tombs “recently discovered in Jomdo County, Chamdo, southwest China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, in which the cultural features not only possess strong local characteristics, but also have very clear similarities with sarcophagus remains found in the Min Jiang River and Yarlung River basin in the west part of southwest China’s Sichuan Province”.

Quoting a Chinese archaeologist, the article further argues: “This discovery confirms that around 2,000 years ago, there had been frequent communication and exchanges between the people living in the east part of Tibet and those in the plateau areas of western Sichuan.”

Another article in China News mentions the Western Tibet tombs; quoting Dr Feng Yang from the School of Archaeology, Culture and Science of Sichuan University, it speculated that the tombs dated back to the seventh century BC. During a seminar on “2020 Tibet Cultural Relics and Archaeological Achievements” recently held in Lhasa, Dr Feng gave a report on the latest stages of excavations: “Seven archaeological surveys and trial excavations were carried out from 1994 to 2001. In order to explore the early society and civilisation of western Tibet and clarify its status in Tibetan civilisation, archaeological excavations in this area continued from 2018 to 2020; 10 new cemeteries were discovered (eight of them were date-tested), 68 tombs were cleared, 10 new sites were excavated and one stone tool site found. Systematic carbon fourteen dating was done, and a basic chronological framework could be established.”

According to Feng Yang, the 68 tombs are divided into four phases: “Tombs are rich in burial goods, including pottery, iron, bronze, seashells, mussel decorations, beads, woodware, etc. The phenomenon of burial of animals is common, including sheep, horses, and cows.”

The article added: “The cultural connotation of this area is obviously diverse, and cultural connections with different surrounding areas can be seen, including cultural connections with the mainland.”

Unless India decides to heavily invest in the archaeology of the Himalayas, which will prove the Indic origin of the Zhangzhung kingdom, China will rewrite the history of India’s borders. But how many politicians understand this in New Delhi? Probably no one.


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